Fifty hours later they were in Botswana, the two buggies loaded with gear and fuel. After the sun set on their first few hours in Africa, the team left the base and headed for an unguarded area of the border and sneaked into South Africa. From there, they spent another eight hours driving both on and off the road until they found a hill outside Bloemfontein, where they parked and camouflaged the buggies, then humped to the top with all their gear. The drive had been surreal, the scenes of derelict vehicles and clear signs of fighting everywhere, but they were home now and got down to work. They knew there was a large group of whites about 12 clicks due south which was estimated at 100.000 or so, because they’d seen satellite pictures of the area. For the moment, their mission was to dig in and observe road traffic, as well as report any military vehicles which approached the group. The first day passed uneventfully, but on the second evening they saw a military unit approaching from the north in line abreast formation. Their binoculars and night vision made them out to be three Casspir APCs and three Ratel IFVs along with four Samil trucks just behind, heading for the cornered refugees a little further away. Things were about to get interesting, because the NATO fleets had arrived and South Africa was blanketed with air assets it didn’t own or want, but could do nothing about- and one of them was a JSTARS aerial surveillance aircraft out of Botswana. Papa Two Seven got on the horn and reported the sighting to the JSTARS, which in turn relayed it to two U.S. Air Force F-15s (also out of Botswana) who were flying race track patterns at their most economical speed. The F-15 pilots had been eagerly anticipating something like this after their Navy colleagues had gotten good kills a few days earlier, and were about 100 kilometers away, flying at 10.000 meters. They increased speed to 400 knots and began to descend, then from 30 kilometers away broadcast on the guard channel “Attention SANDF unit heading for refugees outside Bloemfontein! This is U.S. Air force flight Yankee Tango 01. Turn back now or you will be fired upon!” then repeated it three more times. Eventually, a heavily accented African voice came on and said “You know what Yankee Tango? You can Yankee Doodle yourself back to wherever you came from because this is my country, now fuck off!”

Yankee Tango 01 switched to an encrypted frequency and reported to JSTARS the South Africans weren’t turning back. The JSTARS handed them over to Papa 27 for clearance and terminal guidance, then monitored the situation. “Papa 2-7, this is Yankee Tango 01 and 02 inbound to target, over.” Papa 2-7 responded “Yankee Tango 0-1, this is Papa 2-7 Foxtrot Alpha Charlie. Target is three Casspir APCs, three Ratel IFVs and four Samil trucks heading north to south 15 clicks west of Bloemfontein. No SAMs and MANPADS evident this time. We’re lasing the nearest Ratel for you as a reference point. You are cleared hot, I say again, you are cleared hot, over.” “Papa 2-7, Yankee Tango 0-1. Roger that. Advise Bravo Delta Alpha (BDA, or Bomb Damage Assessment) afterwards, over.” “Roger, wilco Yankee Tango 0-1. Come get some, Papa 2-7 out.”

The F-15s spread out 300 meters one behind the other and dived to 3.000 meters, then each selected a Ratel for their Maverick missiles and fired from 10 kilometers out. The IFVs went up in spectacular balls of fire, the turret of one flying just like in the movies. The convoy stopped and then tried to disperse, but the deadly eagles above them dropped some guided 500 pound bombs, one of which landed on top of the third Samil truck and its blast blew over another, after which the F-15s rose up 1.000 meters and did a loop, then came back for more. Each fired another Maverick, then when a Casspir and a Ratel went up, dropped two more bombs which hit a second Casspir and stopped the trucks stone dead. As an added bonus, the pilots made a left turn, strafed the trucks and pulled up. “Yankee Tango 0-1, Papa 2-7. You got ‘em all. We see some survivors from a truck running back on foot, but there’s no other movement, so I’ll score this one a perfect hit. Nice job.” “Papa 2-7, Yankee Tango. Roger, thank you. Call us if you need more fun. Out.”

Papa 27 spent another day and night on that hill, discouraging any South African soldiers who tried to approach, inflicting hundreds of casualties and together with the air boys directed by their sharp FAC, wiped out dozens of vehicles and even a trio of tanks. Their kill box was now, soldier-free, so they decided to approach the whites. It took a couple of hours to climb down, stow their gear and head towards the refugees, and that’s when Willem came in handy. He’d been pushing his team mates to learn the Afrikaans phrases, and while they were getting the hang of it, their American accents made it sound quite funny to Willem’s ear. He didn’t rag them about it, but knew he’d have to be the one who did the initial approach, or else they’d probably be shot. Twelve clicks over farm land and quite a few cut fences later, they neared a mass of vehicles that stretched as far back as the eye could see. The stench was overwhelming even from 100 meters out. Well, it wasn’t as if the refugees had portable toilets and access to showers and Dial soap, the guys said to each other. Willem asked his team to cover him, but not look like they were doing it, then got out of the vehicle and slowly moved the M-4 to his back. He reached into his shirt pocket and came out with a badly wrinkled Vierkleur (apartheid era South African flag), which he held with both hands while he walked towards the now-alerted refugees. He wasn’t Delta or even “ordinary” Special Forces, but he’d had the right idea back at his apartment and now fervently thanked his former soldier father for this parting gift he’d kept hidden for years. The refugees watched him over rifle and pistol sights as he approached, but nobody fired, so he got within 10 meters of the perimeter, drew a breath and said “Goeie more, mense! My naam is Willem van Aswegen. Ek en my maats is soldate van die Amerikaanse Weermag, en ons kom om julle te hulp!” translated, this meant “Good morning, people! My name is Willem van Aswegen. My mates and I are soldiers from the American Army and we’ve come to help you!”

The South Africans were skeptical at first, but when they saw the definitely not South African gear he carried, they called some other people, who were more or less their leaders. It made for an interesting conversation. Everybody wanted to know what was happening, and the curious crowd that had begun to gather was shouting increasingly loud questions. He got them to allow his team to approach and everybody relaxed when they heard the other four guys speak Afrikaans with American accents. Unlike Willem, the refugees laughed their heads off and the poor soldiers blushed furiously, which made the people laugh even harder. At least they were laughing, probably for the first time since all of this started. Even better, they weren’t shooting. The Delta guys went a little Afghan on this. They stayed near their vehicles, but pulled out a blanket and laid it on the ground, then invited a few of the leaders to sit. They produced tablets with saved news clippings from CNN, BBC and al Jazeera which showed what the world knew about what had happened in South Africa so far, and focused especially on the stories of how refugees in Botswana and Namibia were being given asylum in America, Canada and Europe. Some of the leaders were of the old sort, who had ideas of fighting for their country, not leaving it. The Delta team couldn’t persuade everybody and didn’t try, but they made it clear the refugees’ safest course of action was to start moving towards Namibia at their best possible speed. To allay the refugees’ worries, they asked them if they’d heard anything or saw flashes on the horizon, and many replied that they had. It was against procedure, but the Delta team told them that was their work, that together with aircraft they’d been protecting the refugees here with airstrikes which took out hundreds of soldiers and heavy vehicles which would’ve wiped them out otherwise. They further explained the routes would be watched from the air and ground by NATO units, the South African air force no longer existed and God had better help anybody who tried to attack the refugees because nobody else will. They could see the problems the refugees faced, but also told them help was coming and would be available on the way- all they had to do was pass the word down the line and start moving towards Upington and then Namibia.

In one of the quiet moments while the leaders went to speak to their people, Papa 27 got on the radio and filed a sitrep that was followed by a request to send some planes on a fly over to demonstrate to the skeptical whites there would be air cover. Within half an hour, five planes came from the east and flew some circles, three of them flew over doing barrel rolls at 500 meters, then slowly headed west. The team got some refugees to look up, and by now everybody saw what was going on, then the preparations started in earnest. It took hours, but eventually Papa 27 led them as they moved to the road and slowly headed towards freedom, while every member of the team privately hoped that help would be available on the road as promised. The number of refugees who made it to Namibia had slowed to a trickle over the last ten days or so. A flood was on the way…

 

End of Part 18. To be continued…

Mircea Negres

Port Elizabeth

South Africa